After a successful 2022 Women’s National Basketball Association season, the reigning champion, Las Vegas Aces, sought to make some lucrative moves this offseason. Preceding the recent announcement from future Hall-of-Famer Candace Parker to join the franchise, the Aces agreed to trade their bench leader Dearica Hamby to the Los Angeles Sparks in exchange for negotiating rights to Amanda Zahui B. and a future second-round pick. Hamby was drafted 6th overall in 2015 by the Aces’ predecessor, the San Antonio Stars, and has stayed with the organization until the recent trade. She is a two-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year and a two-time WNBA All-Star. Her story of motherhood has also been one of the social media spotlights of the Aces

In an Instagram post on Jan. 21, Hamby released a statement accusing the Aces’ management of “traumatizing” comments and behaviors around the Los Angeles trade. “Being traded is a part of the business,” the WNBA star first acknowledged, “being lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against is not.” She signed a multi-year extension with the Aces last June and announced her pregnancy during the championship parade last September, which seems to be the root of the controversy. According to Hamby’s statement, the Aces accused her of signing the contract “knowingly pregnant” while calling her a “question mark,” saying she “didn’t hold up [her] end of the bargain,” and blamed her for “not taking precautions to not get pregnant.” 

Hamby made it clear in her post that she planned to return to action after her pregnancy and had “pushed [herself] throughout [her] entire pregnancy and have continued to work out… even on days where it was uncomfortable to walk.” However, the Aces, allegedly, did not believe she worked hard enough and did not anticipate her to be ready by the start of the season. Hamby described the behavior as “unprofessional and unethical,” especially for an organization “who preach[es] family, chemistry, and women’s empowerment.” “We fought for provisions that would finally support and protect player parents. This cannot now be used against me," she contested in her post. 

This is by no means a simple issue, nor is it the first encounter the WNBA has had with working mothers. One of the more notable cases dates back to 2018 when the six-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith played the whole WNBA season pregnant. In a 2020 interview with Women’s Health, Diggins-Smith revealed that a big part of her decision to hide the pregnancy was based on fear. “In the past, there’s been players that I’ve known who have only gotten half their salary,” Diggins-Smith said during the interview. Already having to play overseas to make ends meet, taking a pay cut could pose great challenges to any WNBA player. 

Another noteworthy example of pregnancy discrimination came from Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Famer Sheryl Swoopes and her pro-ball debut six weeks after her delivery during the inaugural WNBA season in 1997. Swoopes battled against harsh sarcasm, lack of assurance from her franchise, and public scrutiny of her fitness being a mother as a professional athlete throughout the entire season. She proved that it is possible to play as a mother and invited the basketball world to take a deeper look into this controversial issue. Considering Swoopes’ return to the court and Diggins-Smith advocacy for working mothers, the WNBA and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association struck a deal in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that guarantees players fully-paid maternity leaves, with $5000 stipends, and other benefits

There are several aspects to explore in Hamby’s case. First, some compare WNBA players’ pregnancy to injury, a familiar analogy for men’s leagues in the male-dominated world of professional sports. The logic is simple: if a player gets injured, their market value as an athlete decreases and their team has every right to trade them for an active player. That said, being injured (unlike having children) is never a pursuit of anyone’s life. It is the nature of the game to be injured, and players bear parts of the responsibility of preventing themselves from injury–as every athlete reasonably does. Yet, to be pregnant or not should always be the decision of a person, as it is the right of every person to become pregnant at any stage of their life. The complexity of this issue begs the question of how a player’s pregnancy should fall into the market equation of professional players, and the attitude of the management largely dictates what the formula would look like. Secondly, based on the spirit of a woman’s right to become pregnant when employed, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) prohibits “discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” However, after a trade, the player rarely suffers any loss of benefit or reduction in salary, which is in agreement with both the PDA and the 2020 CBA. One might argue that Hamby’s scenario qualifies as what the PDA describes as an “unfavorable job assignment,” but that would entail further legal interpretations. As a result of such inattentive clauses to the specific circumstances Hamby faces, the jurisdiction over the case might boil down to the alleged comments from the Aces’ management. If it were true that the Aces called Hamby a “question mark” and wished her to stay away from pregnancy, that would be evidence of clear-cut pregnancy discrimination. 

The WNBPA has already begun its investigation of Hamby’s allegations and promised to “ensure her rights” under the 2020 CBA as well as state and federal law. Whether this specific case is pregnancy discrimination or not, it definitely requires a further look. The WNBA, considering its long history of dealing with pregnant players from the first WNBA season, should start exploring ways and taking actions to better protect their working mothers in the league.